Orbenia Greer Stewart Burges: A Tribute to a Mountain Woman
Some 10 days ago, my Mema, Orbenia Vivian Greer Stewart Burges, died unexpectedly at the ripe old age of 90. We all thought she would live past 100 like her grandfather but, as they say in her native Kentucky, “the good Lord had other plans.” Although she leaves behind much grief and sadness among the legion of friends and family to whom she meant the world, her legacy will endure in many ways, including in the field of Appalachian studies. Indeed, she was the central reason why I chose to study Appalachian history for my PhD and to start this blog. My dissertation is dedicated to her. The story of her and her (our) family is the story of the eastern Kentucky mountains. This essay is my tribute to her.
Orbenia was born on June 20, 1927, on the banks of Beefhide Creek in Pike County, Kentucky, the first child of Oscar and Leurena Greer. The name Orbenia came from nowhere but the original imagination of her parents. Depending on who you believe, Beefhide creek—still today the location of her family’s home place—was named either by surveyors employed by Daniel Boone in the late eighteenth century or by an early railroad engineer in the nineteenth. By the time of her birth, the Greer family had become an institution in western Pike County.
Originally from the Scottish Highlands, the Greers were part of the MacGregor clan before James Grier migrated to the New World in the late 17th century and settled in Maryland. Over the ensuing generations, the Greers (as they now spelled it) spread into Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Benjamin Greer, Orbenia’s great-great-great-great grandfather (and my 6th great grandfather), was a hunting companion of Daniel Boone’s and moved with the legendary mountaineer and his family to northwestern North Carolina in the 1760s. According to Lyman Draper, “Bennie” Greer fought under Benjamin Cleveland at the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780. William Waitsill Lenoir recorded an episode during the campaign in which Greer threatened to whip a fellow soldier for stealing his tobacco. After Cleveland urged the two men to focus their energy on the enemy and not each other, Greer reportedly said, “I’ll give him a hint of it anyway,” and later knocked the tobacco thief down. For generations afterward, the Greers often said “You don’t have to knock me down with a hint.” After the Revolution, Greer took out a land grant in what is now Watauga County, North Carolina, where his family remained for more than 60 years.
In 1858, Bennie Greer’s grandson, Isaac Newton Greer, hearing tales of fertile soil and plentiful game in the mountains of Kentucky, loaded his wagons and led his family, which included Orbenia’s great-grandfather, Levi Greer, north and west through Abingdon, Wise, and Pound Gap, Virginia, into Kentucky and to Shelby Creek, a tributary of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. From there, the Greers continued upstream to Beefhide Creek and to the mouth of what became known as Philip’s Branch, where both he and Levi built log cabins adjacent to each other. Like others in the hollow, Levi Greer avoided service in either the Union or Confederate armies during the Civil War, but Beefhide and rest of the mountains of eastern Kentucky were torn apart by violence. Levi told his children and grandchildren about the time he had to hide in a log to avoid detection by soldiers. Although he did not fight in the war, his Republican/Unionist proclivities were clear when he named his fourth-born son—and Orbenia’s grandfather—John Ulysses Greer in 1867.
John U. Greer started a family relatively late in life. After trying his hand at picking cotton in Arkansas in the 1880s, he returned to Beefhide Creek with some spending money and bought a carriage, a team of horses, and some land. He must have been back by 1889, for he later told his family that he was in Pikeville that year to watch the court proceedings of those Hatfields accused of killing several McCoys. In 1891, he married Minnie Mullins, a local school teacher who taught him how to read and write. Five years later, they had their first of seven children, and Orbenia’s father Oscar was born in 1905. Although they were not particularly prosperous, they did own their farm, and John supplemented his farm earnings and Minnie’s teacher salary by digging ginseng and hunting. He became a preacher in a Primitive Baptist church and a renowned fiddler who often sat on his porch and sent echoes of fiddle music through the hollow, attracting friends and family who wanted to come listen and dance.
By 1907, the area around Beefhide Creek was poised for big changes. Discovering a monster seam of coal in what became known as the Elkhorn Coal field, coal companies swooped into the area to purchase mineral rights from property owners in the area. In 1912, Consolidation Coal Company built the town of Jenkins on Elkhorn Creek, just 15 miles from Beefhide, and local men throughout the area faced decisions on whether or not to sell to the coal companies, to move to the company town, and to work in the mines. John U. Greer refused to ever work for the companies or sell them land, but the loss of his wife to cancer made it more difficult for him to provide for his family, and so at the age of 16, Oscar took a job as a coal miner.
Oscar prospered as miner. He was a supporter of the union and idolized John L. Lewis during the UMWA’s campaign in eastern Kentucky in the 1930s. “He thought he was more important than the president of the United States,” Orbenia later recalled. Oscar worked in the mines until he was 65, having never missed a day of work. Leurena’s family had worse luck in the mines. Three of her brothers were killed young in mine accidents—one by a falling chunk of rock and one when a band saw cut off his leg.
After his grandfather Levi died, Oscar and his new bride, Leurena Wright, moved into Levi’s old log house where they had Orbenia in June of 1927. Unlike many other coal mining families who had to move off the land and into the coal camps, Oscar kept his farm through sheer hard work, as well as the labor of his family. After working the night shift in the mines, he would come home and get a couple hours of sleep before tending his fields all day. The farm provided most of what the family ate, which included vegetables and fruit, pork, beef, and chicken, and they supplementing their diet with wild gathered foods, game, and fish. They sold some of their surplus produce to the people in Jenkins, traveling by horseback 15 miles over the mountains. It was a tough life but a comfortable one, and Orbenia remembered it fondly. “I had a good life growing up,” she recalled. “I was blessed. I was happy.”
Orbenia was the first-born of what would become nine siblings, including eight sisters, and she grew up caring for her youngest siblings and tending to farm chores. One of the earliest memories Orbenia recalled was as a 3-year-old traveling on the back of “Ole Bill” up the hollow to Philip’s Branch to a new house Oscar built on land that his father gave him. She was ten when the family owned their first car, which Oscar won in a raffle drawing at a local July 4th celebration in Jenkins. She was twelve when they got electricity, and fourteen when she got her first bicycle. It was one of just two bicycles in the hollow. She thought she was hot stuff. From the first through the sixth grade, she traveled the proverbial mile and a half to and from a little one-room schoolhouse until the family moved to Myra at the mouth of Beefhide Creek. She enrolled in Dorton High School and became a star student and a varsity cheerleader. Her memories of those years were full of boys and love, dances and basketball games and birthday parties.
Although her grandparents were Primitive Baptists, Orbenia became involved with a church at the head of Beefhide run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance. She was five years old when Margaret Wearley, a CMA missionary from New York, walked up to her farm and asked her if she could have a sip of water. This encounter marked the beginning of Orbenia’s long relationship to Ms. Wearley and a lifelong devotion to the CMA. “They came in there and changed that whole part of Kentucky,” she later declared. Wearley and the CMA brought musical instruments, held dances and social gatherings, built a clinic where they performed minor surgeries, and addressed other community needs. Headquartered in Canada and New York, the Christian and Missionary Alliance had roots in the social gospel movement of the 1880s, and by the 1930s, they had developed a global network of missionaries, many of whom came to eastern Kentucky to train for work overseas. Perhaps most influential to Orbenia and her siblings, they started the Beefhide Gospel Mission Camp (affectionately named Camp Begomi) in 1941, where she and her siblings spent every summer worshipping God, working on community projects, and socializing. Orbenia’s sister Charlotte later recalled, perhaps hyperbolically, that “life would not have been worth living without those women.”
World War II brought a new wave of changes to the hollow. Orbenia remained on Beefhide and did her part to raise money and morale for the war by writing to soldiers overseas, but like so many other Pike Countians, a few of Orbenia’s siblings left the mountains for the defense factories of Detroit. Following the Japanese surrender, the coal industry started to decline in Pike County. As companies shifted to strip mining, they laid off miners. Wages stagnated, and Jenkins became a shell of what it had been in the 30s. Orbenia took up an offer from what was then Pikeville College and took courses to become a teacher. In 1946, at the age of nineteen, she took charge of a class of 35 first-, second-, and third-graders in a two-room schoolhouse on Long Fork and taught them grammar and children’s literature. It was an eye-opening experience. She was thrust into the role of community leader, organizing wakes for the newly deceased and sing-alongs that continued all weekend. She once faced the wrath of an old bootlegger whose boy she had paddled. When he showed up at her house with a gun strapped to his waist, she went out and talked to him, diffusing the situation through her legendary charm. It was impossible not to like Orbenia.
In 1947, she left the mountains, moving to Augusta to live with her aunt and look for work. After working at an office-supply store for a summer, she met and fell in love with my grandfather, James Stewart, but she returned to Pikeville to fulfill a promise to her parents that she would continue her college education. After two years of separation, during which time James became involved in stock car racing and Orbenia continued her studies at Pikeville College, the two were married in a ceremony at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church officiated by Margaret Wearley. On her honeymoon to Carolina Beach, she became pregnant and had her first child, Diane, nine months later. The family moved to Augusta, where James took a job as a firefighter, and she had three more daughters over the next six years. My mom, Deborah Lynn Stewart, was born in 1953. In subsequent decades, the family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, then to Atlanta, Georgia, where James became a fire chief and, eventually, head of the state fireman’s pension fund. After staying home to raise her daughters, Orbenia went to work at DeKalb General Hospital, joined Clairmont Hills Baptist Church then Rehoboth Baptist Church, and remained active in community and church affairs. After James died in 1990, she remarried to Joe Burges, a barber in Tucker, Georgia, who had grown up in Irwin County. She also remained involved in the lives of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Although she never returned to live in eastern Kentucky, in many ways her heart and soul remained in the mountains her entire life. She took her daughters and, eventually, her grandchildren “back home” nearly every summer, and she continued to donate money to the CMA church. As many of her siblings moved away—to Detroit, Augusta, Columbia, Lexington—she remained the matriarch of the family and helped organized family reunions every other summer that brought us all back to the mountains of central Appalachia. We’d visit the old home place on Beefhide Creek, which is still standing and still owned by the Greers, and we’d listen to tales of life in the hollow. That was my original window into Appalachia, and it made me want to know more.
Her death at home on December 23, 2017, brought great sadness to many people and will leave a giant void in the lives of all who knew and loved her. She was one of the sweetest, most caring, kind, and loving persons I have ever known. She was devoted. To Jesus. To her church. To her family and friends. She was the embodiment of Christian love. She never judged any of us for our many missteps through adolescence. She was always interested in how we were doing and always supported us in whatever we did. She was a force in our lives, a binding force, a supportive force that made our family close and strong. She held the family together in the northeast Atlanta area, and we grew up with our cousins as our best friends and our aunts and uncles as quasi-parents. She called me regularly throughout my life to check in and see how my family was doing, to tell me to come by a see her, to tell me that she was proud of me. We are such a close family because of her. We will all miss her deeply, but she will be remembered and venerated for at least as long as we all shall live.